In an unprecedented move, education ministers of Germany's 16 federal states have agreed to common education standards throughout the country, reining in their fiercely guarded determination of states to set their own targets and curricula.
"What is new is that Germany will not only have these standards for preliminary and school leaving examinations, but also for the whole learning process," said Dagmar Schipanski, science minister for the state of Thuringia and chairman of the co-ordinating conference of education ministers.
Standards are likely to be set for German, maths, science and the first foreign language (usually English) and testing carried out at two to three-year intervals.
Guidelines on what a pupil should know in each year of education will also be drawn up, in a move which ministers deny will lead to a national curriculum. Such a decision would have been unthinkable two years ago. In 1997, education ministers agreed the states should have "more room for manoeuvre" to allow diversity.
However, the OECD's Pisa (programme for international student assessment) study released last year ranked Germany 25th out of 32 countries in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy, shaking up the education establishment. Detailed work on common educational standards has been going on during the past year to overcome weaknesses highlighted by the OECD study. But the states deny they will be losing sovereignty.
"We are united in our goal for better standards but we are also united in agreeing that in the competition between states there can be different ways to achieve these goals," said Juergen Zoellner, science minister for Rhineland-Palatinate. The decision is also intended to pre-empt the detailed Pisa country study to be released in the coming weeks, expected to show wide discrepancies between states.
Even wealthier southern states such as Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, which pride themselves on their education standards, will be shown to have serious deficits in some areas, according to leaked reports. Standardised tests will be used to evaluate ability and performance and will assist in developing curricula, ministers said.
Germany has in the past shied away from standardised testing, which is also opposed by the powerful teachers' unions. In the main Pisa study more than 60 per cent of 15-year-olds said that neither their teachers nor their parents cared about how well they performed. Tests, possibly similar to England's tests, could be brought into primary schools as early as the 2003-4 school year but results will not necessarily be made public.